Can Nuclear Catch Up? Is it Even Needed?

November 7, 2022

The real debate about nuclear among knowledgeable folk is “how do we get the last 20 percent or so of decarbonization”?
Multiple studies show that solar, wind and hydro will get you to 80, or even 90 percent of electricity needs, but some groups maintain that that mix will be prohibitively expensive to eke out the last deciles of production.
Yet, renewables, in particular lately, offshore wind with it’s increased reliability, and battery storage, keep dropping in cost – and that keeps changing the math.

New. Scientist (paywall):

Eight months ago, the UK government made a big bet on nuclear, promising to treble the size of the country’s nuclear fleet between now and 2050.

Delivering on that promise would require huge investment in both large-scale new nuclear plants and small-scale modular reactors. This follows years of government delay and prevarication.

Ministers at the time told the public this push for nuclear was essential to achieve the UK’s aim to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

That nuclear-fuelled zero-carbon future could now be in doubt, according to news reports. A government official told the BBC that plans for the nuclear power plant Sizewell C, which would supply around 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity, are “under review” as the government looks to cut spending.

The prime minister’s spokesperson later denied that it was under review, saying that negotiations with private firms over funding were ongoing and the government “hoped to get a deal over the line as soon as possible”.

However, some academics are questioning whether new nuclear is even necessary.

For years it has been energy orthodoxy to argue that nuclear will be an essential component of the UK’s energy mix to meet its net zero goal. Wind and solar would supply most of the country’s energy, so the thinking went, but some back-up power would be needed for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sky is cloudy.

It is an argument broadly accepted by the UK government, the Climate Change Committee that advises it and, reluctantly, many environmental campaigners.

But that is now changing, says James Price at University College London, author of a study published in September that suggests the government’s backing for new nuclear is “increasingly difficult to justify”.

Price and his colleagues used a model to design cost-effective net-zero energy systems for 2050, using any mix of technologies, such as nuclear fission, interconnectors with other countries, bioenergy with carbon capture, hydrogen storage, lithium batteries, wind and solar power.

The team ran the model 32 times with different variables, such as weather, level of power supplies coming from Europe and the price of new nuclear power.

“Only in two cases did the model build any new nuclear power, beyond what we expect to still be running in 2050,” says Price. Even then, it was on the assumption that nuclear could be delivered relatively quickly and cheaply.

Renewables and storage technologies, such as wind, solar and batteries, are becoming so competitive on price that they are crowding out new nuclear from the system, he says. This is upending traditional thinking about energy grid design. “Because renewables have got so cheap over the last decade people are struggling to catch up with that,” he says.

For campaigners long opposed to new nuclear on the grounds it is a dangerous and polluting source of energy, Price’s analysis is to be cheered. The argument for new nuclear is “getting increasingly hard to sustain, as the technologies or the enablers of a fully renewable system are becoming clearer and clearer”, says Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist Doug Parr.

It takes eight to 10 years to build a new nuclear power station. If models are saying a renewables-plus-storage system is feasible now, at current prices, they could well be by far the best choice in a decade’s time, he says.

Simon Middleburgh at Bangor University, UK, disagrees with the conclusion of Price’s study. “There’s just no reasonable future electricity supply which is net zero that doesn’t include nuclear,” he says. “Nuclear is just very boring, and it will just work.”

What about nuclear fusion? Is there any point starting the lengthy process of building new fission plants if five years later nuclear fusion seems a possibility? Absolutely, says Amy Gandy at the University of Sheffield, UK. Nuclear fusion will be great if it works, but it is at least two decades away from becoming operational. “We can’t be neglecting fission,” she says.

There is one point all the scientists I spoke to agree on. If the UK government ditches plans to build Sizewell C, it needs to have an alternative route to net zero. Without more large-scale new nuclear coming online, energy efficiency, renewables and storage will need extra backing. “It’s got to be about a government having a proper plan,” says Pa


U.S. firms developing a new generation of small nuclear power plants to help cut carbon emissions have a big problem: only one company sells the fuel they need, and it’s Russian.

That’s why the U.S. government is urgently looking to use some of its stockpile of weapons-grade uranium to help fuel the new advanced reactors and kick-start an industry it sees as crucial for countries to meet global net-zero emissions goals.

“Production of HALEU is a critical mission and all efforts to increase its production are being evaluated,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said.

The energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine has renewed interest in nuclear power. Backers of smaller, next-generation reactors say they are more efficient, quicker to build, and could turbocharge the shift away from fossil fuels.

But without a reliable source of the high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) the reactors need, developers worry they won’t receive orders for their plants. And without orders, potential producers of the fuel are unlikely to get commercial supply chains up and running to replace the Russian uranium.

“We understand the need for urgent action to incentivize the establishment of a sustainable, market-driven supply of HALEU,” the DOE spokesperson said.

The U.S. government is in the final stages of evaluating how much of its inventory of 585.6 tonnes of highly enriched uranium to allocate to reactors, the spokesperson said.

The fact that Russia has a monopoly on HALEU has long been a concern for Washington but the war in Ukraine has changed the game, as neither the government nor the companies developing the new advanced reactors want to rely on Moscow.

HALEU is enriched to levels of up to 20%, rather than around 5% for the uranium that powers most nuclear plants. But only TENEX, which is part of Russian state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom, sells HALEU commercially at the moment.

While no Western countries have sanctioned Rosatom over Ukraine, mainly because of its importance to the global nuclear industry, U.S. power plant developers such as X-energy and TerraPower don’t want to be dependent on a Russian supply chain.

“We didn’t have a fuel problem until a few months ago,” said Jeff Navin, director of external affairs at TerraPower, whose chairman is billionaire Bill Gates. “After the invasion of Ukraine, we were not comfortable doing business with Russia.”


14 Responses to “Can Nuclear Catch Up? Is it Even Needed?”

  1. neilrieck Says:

    Thanks for this. Despite how much some of us might be pro-nuclear fan-boys, we live and work in a capitalistic society which means that we need to be able to explain it to an investor before anything else. The first video makes me wonder if any new nuke could ever be made profitable.

  2. neilrieck Says:

    A couple of weeks ago I was asked to sign a petition to stop the construction of a new modular reactor. in Ontario I refused to sign then told the moderator why. Later that day I received this email from a retired nuclear engineer who appears to have had second thoughts. So, I am passing it on to people here as food-for-thought:

    Hello Neil –

    I have been asked to respond to your email copied below. I’m glad to hear that you agree that renewables (and energy efficiency investments) should be deployed before anything else in responding to the climate emergency. And we are agreed that the BWRX reactor planned for the Darlington site is not modular in nature.

    You are correct in saying that heavy water reactors do not require enriched uranium, which theoretically could eliminate the need for enrichment altogether, thereby reducing the nuclear weapons proliferation risk by doing away with enrichment plants. Unfortunately, you are still left with the problem that CANDU reactors (and other heavy water reactors) produce a lot of plutonium which can be used for nuclear weapons at any time in the next 100,000 years, by any future militaristically-inclined regime.

    I am not sure what you mean about heavy water reactors being more easily shut down in an emergency. That is not true for the CANDU design, which (like the RBMK reactors such as Chernobyl) suffer from a “positive void coefficient of reactivity”. In both designs, whenever there is a loss of coolant accident (LOCA), there will be a simultaneous power surge that must be terminated very quickly to prevent severe core damage. This is not the case with light water reactors which have a negative void coefficient – the power goes down when you lose the coolant, because the coolant is also the moderator, and without a moderator you cannot have a chain reaction. In the CANDU and RBMK designers, unfortunately, the moderator is still there even after the coolant is lost, and the chain reaction doesn’t stop but it accelerates.

    This is the reason why CANDU reactors are the only commercial power reactors in the world that require two fully independent fast shutdown systems – shutoff rods and liquid poison injection. The explosions and partial meltdown of the NRX reactor at Chalk River in 1952 led to the realization that CANDU reactors are NOT so easy to shut down.

    I believe your understanding of the DUPIC process is wrong. Dupic makes use of the fact that LWR reactor use enriched fuel, and the spent LWR fuel still has a higher U-235 concentration than natural uranium which is only 0.7 percent U-235. So, by repackaging the spent LWR fuel you can use it to fuel a CANDU reactor. However, this process is pointless if you do not have LWR reactors as well as CANDU reactors.

    Because Korea and China both have such a mix of reactor designs, the DUPIC process is of some interest in those countries, but it is not fully employed in either country as far as I know. Korea is using at most two fuel channels to experiment with Dupic fuel bundles, but by no means are they using it as a full core substitute for natural uranium.

    The problem is that the LWR fuel assemblies have to have their cladding stripped, and the UO2 fuel is oxidized to U3O8, oxidizing the ceramic pellets into a highly radioactive powder that still contains most of the fission products and actinides as well as uranium, meaning that DUPIC fuel bundle fabrication has to be done robotically – making it much more expensive than regular CANDU fuel made of natural uranium, which is much more easily handled. Remember that the fuel costs are quite low for nuclear reactors, so there is little to no economic incentive for DUPIC.

    And by the way, using DUPIC fuel in no way eliminates the conundrum of how to safely keep the used nuclear fuel out of the environment of living things for the next 10 to 20 million years.

    Thank you for writing and for your interest in this entire set of issues. Undeniably, nuclear technology is fascinating and intellectually challenging. But certainly, if we could achieve a fully renewable energy supply chain worldwide there would be enormous advantages in terms of (1) economic and energetic self-sufficiency, (2) no long-lived legacy of radioactive elements — a form of unwanted nuclear energy that cannot be turned off, (3) less catastrophe potential (4) far less international conflict (war) based in part on competition for non-renewable energy resources, and (5) a more stable societal context for ridding the world of nuclear weapons.


    Gordon Edwards, PhD,
    Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      Herr Doktor Gordon elucidates a ideal world, loverly. Will not come into existence by desire alone.
      Any country that wants a bomb will make one! A nuclear reactor is not required to make a Uranium bomb, Canada is not making bombs from it’s reactors so can build more. ‘Waste’ problem is a created red herring. Stick it in the ground until waste burning reactors are built. If they are not built it will be because the world is toast. (Actually no pun intended.)
      Until and if alternatives are found, stop pissing around with ideological dreams and address the problem now.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        “Until and if alternatives are found, stop pissing around with ideological dreams and address the problem now.” (emph mine)

        Yes, now (or Real Soon Now) is key.

        The lead time and costs to build a nuclear power plant competently and without corruption mean that nuclear power is not going to address the problem now. Any funding set aside for the dream of nuclear power plants by 2050 has to be weighed against the opportunity cost of achieving something faster.

        • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

          China’s median build time 4.5 years. This is the 21 st century and it CAN (don’t know how to bold) be done. When a better alternative exists, and can be built competently without corruption, good! Until then work on solutions.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            I’m guessing China’s advantages are:
            (1) consistent design
            (2) not reconfiguring construction teams every time
            (3) coherent financing
            (4) no trouble siting wherever the hell they want

            Even for foreign clients that assume the debt, there’s probably a core of Chinese construction people brought in to do the heavy lifting, with locals just being taught maintenance and operation.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            [“This is an <b>important</b> and <i>interesting</i> point.”
            renders as

            This is an important and interesting point. ]

          • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

            Yes to all, I think?
            Guess I will just flash an Email to the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear responsibility and mention CAGW.

        • John Oneill Says:

          If nuclear build times can equal those in China, South Korea or Japan (or France, Sweden, Belgium and Ontario forty years ago) then new builds started in the later 2020s will be coming on stream about the time all the solar panels and wind turbines put in over the last decade or so will be reaching end of life. Olkiluoto 3 in Finland notoriously took 17 years from first concrete to grid power, but it will make more electricity on average than all the wind turbines installed in Denmark, the world wind champion, over the same period. Nuclear plants can also back each other up, whereas solar panels all down tools together.
          Dr Chris Keefer, the Canadian emergency room doctor who founded Canadians for Nuclear Energy, discusses the nuclear ‘secret sauce’ that allowed different countries, at different times, to build large amounts of nuclear capacity over short timescales, with Kalev Kallemets, CEO of a company planning to install reactors in Estonia by the end of the decade. (Kalev currently has frostbite in his toe, contracted while on practice night manoeuvres with the Estonian National Guard – he’s been a member since the age of 14, and they’re busy learning lessons from the Ukraine war.)

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            “If nuclear build times can equal those in China, South Korea or Japan (or France, Sweden, Belgium and Ontario forty years ago)….

            Is there anything that leads you to think funding and scheduling or construction problems that Hinkley C, Flamanville or Vogtle have will ever be resolved to the point of being able to provide GHG-free GW within ten years at a cost remotely competitive with alternatives we have available now?

            “…then new builds started in the later 2020s will be coming on stream about the time all the solar panels and wind turbines put in over the last decade or so will be reaching end of life.”

            I don’t expect solar farms to reach “end of life” like heavy components or massive installations. As the panels age or get damaged, they would just be replaced (and many panels would be expected to have useful but degraded functional life after their 30 years, so there’s a plausible aftermarket). Solar farms don’t need large scheduled “turnarounds” like big refineries or anything else that has industrial-grade plumbing or mechanisms, they’ll just eventually reach a steady-state maintenance level.

            As for wind farms, I would expect those turbines that produce well would be individually replaced and/or upgraded with scheduled lead times.

            It would have been worth billions for the UK, France or the US state of Georgia to have gotten this physician’s “secret sauce” for their recent projects. As for the Estonian promises, I’ll believe it if I see it, and not before.

      • neilrieck Says:

        While you cannot make a bomb from natural uranium (which is used in CANDU reactors), a centrifuge allows you to separate U235 from U238 (this is something other countries, including Iran, are doing all the time). IIRC, there was some egg on Canadian faces about 40 years back after Canada sold a CANDU to India, who then promptly modified it to produce weapons grade waste material for their military program. But I stand by my original statement: investors in our capitalistic world prefer to invest in something simple and guaranteed. There now appears to be too many strings tied to commercial nuclear energy. This technology might have made sense years ago when Admiral Hymen Rickover was nuclearizing the US Navy, but that is an ecosystem with unlimited budgets along with soldiers to guard the stuff. We do not have unlimited budgets in the commercial world.

        • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

          Yes we, including me, would all like something easier and cheaper. Strenuously maintain there is no other choice at this time except to cook or try not to cook.

  3. The Natrium is specifically designed to load follow. The reactor’s heat goes directly into molten salt storage.

  4. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Weeping and wailing and tearing the hair about cost.
    Let the world cook and suffer real expense.
    Economies accept periods of power shortages. (not totally unreasonable)
    Work to lower the cost like anything else.

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